Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera is a hopeless optimist. From defiant “we’re close” statements when his team continued to lose tight games, to the stir he caused when he wanted to help out a fellow Cal guy, when Rivera sees a glass, he wonders why it’s overflowing. So it wasn’t surprising when he suggested a possible miraculous recovery time for his quarterback after the Panthers wrapped up the second of their 10 OTA practices Wednesday.
When asked if Cam Newton could return by Carolina’s June 16-19 minicamp, Rivera answered, “I really don’t know what the schedule is, especially with him. But I wouldn’t put it past him. I really wouldn’t.”
Despite Rivera’s positive vibes, it’s hard to see Newton being cleared more than a month ahead of schedule. He had surgery on his troublesome left ankle March 19, and his expected recovery time of four months would get him back for the start of training camp.
But you can’t blame Rivera for being hopeful. After weeks of questions about a hobbled quarterback and his revamped receiving corps, Wednesday was a good day for the Panthers.
Newton didn’t participate in drills, but he spent the entire session on the field. In between chats with coaches, quarterbacks and wideouts, he played light catch. Then came a moment that almost seemed scripted.
After practice, as most players retreated to the locker room while reporters circled others, Newton stayed behind. He spent about 10 minutes throwing to receivers Kelvin Benjamin, Marcus Lucas and Kealoha Pilares.
A slant, an out route, an in. And on the sideline, Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman watched as a significant part their offseason vision took true form.
“(Cam’s) been throwing the ball on the side the last few days. He says that foot’s getting stronger and stronger every day, so we’re excited about what’s happening for him,” Rivera said afterward.
To add to the good feelings, it appears Newton has already made a new friend. The once relatively recluse star has made a concerted effort to connect off the field with Benjamin.
Newton invited the Panthers’ first-round pick to his home in Atlanta this past weekend, and the two spent some of their time on the water.
“He’s a great quarterback, a great guy. We’re building that friendship on and off the field. We just went on the boat, went a little swimming, relaxed,” Benjamin said.
Newton is 25. Benjamin is 23.
Steve Smith is 35.
Is it starting to make a little more sense now?
The Panthers are building a team around their young quarterback. It’s one of the reasons they were willing to rebuild their receivers this offseason.
Smith, the veteran who didn’t always play nicely with the new guys, may have been the best wideout on the field Wednesday. But the hope that made uncomfortable change necessary reaches beyond OTAs or even 2014.
As they left the field together, Benjamin asked Newton about his schedule for later in the day. The quarterback disappointedly answered that he had other plans.
Rivera, who walked off later wearing a hat engraved with the words “Be Revelant” said, “It’s kind of funny, because Kelvin told him, ‘I ain’t never been to a big city.’ So with that Cam said, ‘Let’s go.’ They hung out a little bit. He showed him the big city, the bright lights.”
It’s been a mostly dark offseason for the Panthers, but perhaps there is some light on the horizon after all.